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Here’s Why Biden Is Flailing

He’s a party animal.
July 12, 2022
Here’s Why Biden Is Flailing
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

[On the July 8, 2022, episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, Ruy Teixeira was asked to explain President Joe Biden’s low approval rating.]

Mona Charen: Ruy, I’d like you to speculate on why it is that President Biden just seems so ineffective. His approval rating, at the moment, according to a recent Monmouth poll . . . was 36 percent approval, which is dismal, going into a midterm. And yet in the face of inflation and Dobbs and school shootings, and you know, many other issues . . . he leaves no footprints. Why do you think that is? I’ll give you three possibilities and if it’s none of those, please tell me. One is he is just too damn old. Second is he’s a senator, not used to executive leadership and doesn’t have the muscles for it. Or three, he just was never that great of a politician to begin with.

Ruy Teixeira: [Biden’s approval rating] is the worst, actually, of any president at this point in their term in modern polling, so he’s definitely pretty far down in the toilet, as it were.

Is he in a difficult situation? Yes. Is he playing his cards as well as they could be played? Almost certainly no.

But why is that? . . . I think all of the things you mentioned could be possibilities, including that he’s not maybe as good a politician as we gave him credit for. But maybe we were looking at it wrong. It’s not that he’s a good politician. It’s that he is a quintessential creature of his party. . . . He tacks to what he perceives to be the center ground of his party, even if that is maybe not what is maximally effective in a broad political sense. . . .

He won the nomination being a moderate and then he tacked to the left, as opposed to going to the center, which is unusual, right?

Since he became president, he staffed up in many ways in many different levels with people who are significantly not particularly moderate and not particularly attuned to the median voter and have their own particular activist priorities—which has had a big effect, I think, on the image and the practices of his administration.

Now, why would all that be? I think, because he’s a creature of the party. He doesn’t want to provoke fights in the party. He wants everybody to be happy. He doesn’t have a necessarily clear perspective on what the appropriate politics is for the country as a whole. He wants people to get along. And he wants people to row in the same direction even when they’re rowing in the other direction, he doesn’t want to call them out for it, right?

I mean, why did he go down to Capitol Hill in the middle of the infrastructure / Build Back Better fight and whip against his own bill, whip against voting on it? Because he wanted to placate the left. So I think this is, in some ways, a fundamental origin of his problem. He has a difficulty giving us the image and the practice of strong leadership because his leadership isn’t directed enough at the country and the actual problems. It’s directed too much about trying to keep peace within his own party.

And I think that to some extent goes against his own relatively decent instincts about some things. But, you know, what does Biden think about abortion? He probably does think, you know, probably that the most sensible position is first trimester and after that exceptions only for the health of the mother, incest, etc.

What does he think about, you know, the border? He probably thinks it should be secured. But, he’s under huge pressure not to articulate that kind of thing.

What does he think about crime? He probably thinks we should crack down on crime. You know, remember—fund the police, fund the police, fund the police? But that’s different than saying, let’s put criminals in jail. Let’s be tough on crime tough on the causes of crime, and people who don’t think we should have that approach—like Chesa Boudin, who just got cashiered out by the voters of San Francisco, I applaud that. That is not what Democrats are about on the issue of crime, but [Biden] won’t do that kind of thing. . . .

The thing that’s really hemming him in is the fact that he’s a prisoner of the party. And the party, in fact, is not in very good shape. The party has all kinds of roiling currents and influences. And as someone was putting in interest groups, we want to call the activists that, that actually get in the way of effective politics that would appeal to the middle of the country.

And until and unless Biden and other leaders are willing to take that on, I don’t think anything’s going to turn out particularly well, despite an example like the abortion issue where you would think, given that they are in fact, closer to the center of the public opinion than the other side to the median voter, they should be able to make great hay out of this, but I think that’s going to be pretty difficult for them. At the margin, they’ll probably get some good in some races, but it’s not going to be as productive for them as it could have been.

Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author, most recently, of The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think (St. Martin’s, 2017).